FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The new chairman of a small northern Arizona tribe entered the race despite a provision in the tribe's constitution that prohibits anyone with a felony conviction within 10 years of declaring candidacy from doing so.
Hopi Chairman Tim Nuvangyaoma openly talked about his struggles with alcoholism before the election and credited a drunken driving charge 11 years ago in Maricopa County for turning his life around. The political newcomer's platform was centered on helping Hopis overcome addiction and hardships, and involving the community in decisions regarding the tribe's future.
Finding Nuvangyaoma's court and corrections record for his last conviction isn't possible without knowing his last name was misspelled. He pleaded guilty to felony aggravated DWI in November 2007, placing him within the timeframe that should have kept him from the chairman's race. He was released from state prison in 2014.
No one challenged Nuvangyaoma's candidacy after the tribal election board certified him in July, he advanced beyond the primary in September, he won general election in November and he was sworn in Dec. 1.
An appeal came last week when Nuvangyaoma's predecessor, Herman Honanie, argued tribal election board members erred in certifying Nuvangyaoma and asked the tribal court to disqualify him.
"They are the ones who are responsible for making sure that anyone who runs for chairman is eligible," said Honanie's attorney, Gary LaRance. "They knew of his criminal history, but they looked at the date he committed the offense."
The election board's attorney, Howard Shanker, said Honanie and at least one other candidate in the election knew about Nuvangyaoma's background but did not challenge his candidacy within the grievance periods. Shanker asked the tribal court Wednesday to dismiss the appeal as untimely.
Honanie contends the appealable action is a Nov. 30 letter from the Hopi Election Board saying it properly certified Nuvangyaoma as a candidate. Shanker disagreed, saying the July certification marked the start of a 30-day period to challenge the certification.
The 46-year-old Nuvangyaoma has served four prison sentences for aggravated drunken driving convictions stemming from traffic stops in Maricopa County in 1994, 1998, 2000 and 2006. Officers spotted him swerving, driving into oncoming traffic, nearly striking a curb and sleeping with his foot on the brake at a stop light in Phoenix. No one was physically hurt.
In a Sept. 2 debate in Phoenix, Nuvangyaoma said he never tried to cover up his alcoholic past, was in recovery and was charged with a felony 11 years ago. He said he included the information on his biography he submitted to elections officials.
Tribal registrar Karen Shupla declined to answer questions from The Associated Press.
Nuvangyaoma said Wednesday that he's aware of Honanie's challenge. He did not respond to a question of whether he entered the race with full knowledge of the constitutional amendment approved by Hopi voters in May that added the felony provision.
LaRance said Honanie did not raise objections to Nuvangyaoma's candidacy earlier because he wasn't aware of the latest conviction that shows up in Arizona records under the name "Nuvangyaome" instead of "Nuvangyaoma." Honanie, now a Tribal Council representative, contends he might have advanced beyond the primary election had Nuvangyaoma been disqualified early on.
The Tribal Council, which includes the chairman and vice chairman, sought legal guidance in late November on whether Nuvangyaoma should be sworn in or a special election held to fill the position, given the timing of the felony conviction, according to court records.
The election board deferred to the Tribal Council but told representatives to consider the time for challenging election results had passed, Nuvangyaoma would qualify as a candidate in a special election and he won the general election by more than 325 votes.
Associated Press Writer Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix contributed to this report.